Spong breaks down ‘literary myth’ of Judas Iscariot

John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, N.J., listens to an audience member’s question following the fourth of his five Week One Interfaith Lectures, themed “Re-Claiming the Bible in a Non-Religious World.” Photo by Lauren Rock.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

The story of Judas Iscariot is full of intrigue, betrayal and condemnation. Of the players in the New Testament, Judas, the fallen apostle, is recognizable to most Christians, but retired Bishop John Shelby Spong said he believes Judas, the man, never existed.

In Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture, Spong examined the case of Judas Iscariot through a historical and biblical lens. In his fourth lecture of the week based on the title of his recent book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, Spong said Judas Iscariot was never a man, but a literary figure created decades after the crucifixion to represent non-Christ-following Jews.

To contextualize his argument, Spong opened his lecture with the story of the Jewish war with the Roman Empire. The war between the Romans and the Jews exploded in the year 66. Before the full-blown military engagement, Jewish Zealots, or “freedom fighters,” had staged frequent guerilla attacks against the Romans for decades, Spong said. In 70 C.E., the Romans embarked on a fierce offensive and seized the city of Jerusalem.

“I mean, the Romans went through Jerusalem like the Russians went through Berlin at the end of the World War,” Spong said.

The fall of Jerusalem left an indelible scar on Jewish history, he said.

“I suspect the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 of this Common Era also shaped both Christian history and Jewish history more dramatically than any of us has yet imagined,” Spong said.

Before Jerusalem fell, relations between Jews who followed Christ and Jews who did not follow Christ were tense. When Jerusalem fell, they worsened dramatically. The Jews who followed Christ blamed the Orthodox Jews for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland, Spong said.

In the year 88, Jesus’ followers were excommunicated from the Jewish faith, he said.

“The followers of Jesus began to think of the Jews not as people, like themselves, but as their primary ecclesiastical enemy,” Spong said.

It was leading up to, and during, this time that the first gospels were being written, Spong said. He said he believes that the character Judas Iscariot was added to the Bible so early Christians could absolve the Romans and Pontius Pilot of the death of Christ and blame the Jews instead.

Spong said he first became suspicious of Judas’ origins when he realized that Judas, the name given to Jesus’ betrayer, was the Greek spelling of the work Judah, which meant Jew.

“I thought it was just too convenient that the anti-hero of the Christian story bears the same name with whom Christians were locked in a very tense struggle for survival.” Spong said.

To further explore the possibility that Judas Iscariot was mythical, and not man, Spong analyzed each mention of Judas in the writings of Paul and in the gospels.

Paul, who wrote between the years 51 and 64, was one of the earliest Christian writers, Spong said.

“No place in the corpus of Paul’s writings is there any hint that Paul had ever heard of the tradition that Jesus was betrayed by one of the 12,” Spong said. “Paul says Jesus appeared to the 12 after the crucifixion — there was no defection, Judas was still there.”

The character of Judas Iscariot first appeared in the Christian tradition in the Gospel of Mark, written around the year 72, a few years after the fall of Jerusalem. When the character entered the Christian tradition, he came already equipped with a surname that stemmed from a word meaning “political assassin,” Spong said.

After his arrival in the Gospel of Mark, the character of Judas Iscariot only became more sinister in subsequent gospels, Spong said.

“The Judas story expands over these years and in that expansion, Judas, the figure who bears the same name as the nation of the Jews, also becomes more and more evil,” Spong said. “All you have to do is open the Bible, know the order and see how the story grows.”

When Judas is first introduced in Mark, he is mentioned three times. In chapter three, it is written that Judas went to the chief priests to betray Jesus for an unnamed amount of money. Later in the same chapter, Jesus is quoted as saying “he who eats at the table with me will betray me,” Spong said.

“The idea that the traitor is also one who eats at the table of the Lord is mentioned in every gospel, but Judas does not get identified in person or by name until the last of the gospels,” Spong said.

The final time Judas is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark is when he arrives in the garden to hand over Jesus and is surrounded with guards and authorities from the Jewish temple. In the garden, he betrays Jesus with a kiss, Spong said.

In the Gospel of Matthew, written in the early 80s and the second gospel to elaborate on the Christian narrative, there are some changes and additions to the story of Judas’ betrayal. The price of his betrayal is set as 30 pieces of silver. In Matthew, when Jesus says, “someone at this table will betray me,” Judas responds, “Surely it is not I.”

Photo by Lauren Rock.

In the Gospel of Matthew, there is another detail added to the story of Judas.

“Judas repented, (Matthew) said. He tried to return the money — the return was refused so Judas hurled the money into the temple and went out and hanged himself,” Spong said.

Luke wrote his gospel in the late 80s and early 90s, Spong said, and once more, the story of Judas Iscariot was altered. Luke wrote that Judas betrayed Jesus because Satan possessed him. Luke also added dialogue between Judas and Jesus during the betrayal in the garden, Spong said.

In the Book of Acts, which was written by Luke, the story of Judas’ death was recorded. In the story, Judas accepts the silver in exchange for handing over Jesus, and he uses it to buy land. When he travels to see the land, he falls down, and his bowels ‘gush out onto the land,’ ” Spong said.

“I don’t believe your bowels gush out when you’re hung,” Spong said.

The Gospel of John is the last, written in the 10th decade. In John’s gospel, Jesus directly points to Judas as his betrayer during the Last Supper.

Each gospel story of Judas is slightly different and more enhanced than the last, Spong said. But certain points were replicated in each retelling.

“Who is this Judas? He is one who breaks bread at the table of the Lord, that’s mentioned four times. He is one who is betrayed with a kiss, that’s mentioned four times,” Spong said.

Judas is also a man who kills himself and throws the money from his betrayal into the temple, and a man whose bowels flow out of him, killing him, Spong said.

“Now let me take that data, go back into the Hebrew Scriptures and look at every story of a traitor that you can find in those Hebrew Scriptures, and we will discover that every detail in the Judas story can be found in one of these earlier Jewish traitor stories,” Spong said.

In Samuel, the story of Ahitophel was told. Ahitophel was one of King David’s closest advisers — so close that they often shared a table and broke bread together. At one point, Ahitophel betrayed David and was caught. In response to his betrayal being discovered, Ahitophel hanged himself, Spong said.

“In Second Zechariah, the Shepherd King of Israel is bought off for 30 pieces of silver, which is then hurled back into the temple,” Spong said.

In all four of the gospels, Judas betrays Jesus with the kiss of death. That form of betrayal was also seen in the Hebrew Scriptures, Spong said. In a story from the time of King David, a soldier named Amasa replaced one of David’s army commanders, Joab. Joab heard Amasa had replaced him, and he went to congratulate him. When Joab reached Amasa, he pulled him near and made as if to kiss him, but instead he disemboweled him with his dagger, Spong said.

“If you analyze the biblical data, you will discover that the Judas story is not particularly original, Spong said.

“All of which makes me suspicious that the character we meet in the gospel called Judas the Assassin, Judas Iscariot, is nothing more than a literary composite of the traitor stories of the Old Testament, developed by the followers of Jesus as an attempt to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans, who were surely the guilty party, to the Jews, with whom the Christians were in such deep tensions,” Spong said.

In the years following the crucifixion, the early Christians, who were still Jews, actively worked to incorporate Jesus into the Jewish prophetic tradition.

“So the followers of Jesus were ‘Revisionist Jews,’ and the opposition were ‘Orthodox Jews,” Spong said.

Following the Crucifixion, the two groups of Jews had a relationship fraught with tension, but they did not divide completely and turn against one another until the war between the Romans and the Jews, Spong said.

After the war and the sacking of Jerusalem, the Roman victors treated the Jews very harshly and sought to repopulate their territory with pagans and to destroy the Jewish nation entirely, Spong said.

For the Revisionist Jews, or early Christians, it became apparent that to further separate themselves from the Orthodox Jewish party the Romans were intent on destroying, they would need to set up the Orthodox Jewish party as a mutual enemy.

“They did this by creating a symbol of the Orthodox party, by giving him the name of the Jewish nation, by creating him as the assassin, and they used this to court Roman favor, by saying the enemy of the Romans was also the enemy of the followers of Jesus Christ,” Spong said.

The creation of the story of Judas Iscariot was how early Christians shifted the blame for the death of Christ from the Romans to the Orthodox Jews. With this one addition to the Biblical narrative, Spong said, the early Christians instigated and inspired the anti-Semitic ideas that have plagued the Jewish people and the world since.

“I think the time has come for Christians to bow in humility and beg forgiveness from the Jewish people for what we Christians have done to them in the name of our Jewish Jesus,” Spong said.

There is one comment

  1. Sahansdal

    The stories of Judas and Lazarus are cover stories for the successorship of James. Hegesippus tells of James being given up to be killed by a mob after his conviction on blasphemy by Ananus because “people were believing on Jesus because of him” having been raised from the dead.
    Judas is the cover character who “betrays” with a kiss, the same kiss that the First Apocalypse of John has James giving to Jesus as he is given the spirit – anointing him as a Master, or
    savior, to follow Jesus. In John Jesus says “NOW is the Son of man glorified” as he walks out the door, ostensibly to go about his “betrayal”. The whole Betrayal scenario is full of details
    that are a description of the mystic transference of spirit: both from Master to disciple, and
    from Master to Master. “Paradidomai” means “to deliver” not “to betray”. “My Deliverer is at hand” (Mark 14:43). Email for the full story: sahansdal at yahoo dot com


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